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US Ends Military Mission in Iraq December 16, 2011

The U.S. military has formally ended its mission in Iraq.  At a ceremony in Baghdad, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta watched as American troops lowered their command’s flag, marking an end to the nearly nine-year war that drove out Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein.  

It was a solemn, low-key ceremony outside a terminal at Baghdad’s airport in a fortified area surrounded by concrete barriers.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta flew in briefly for the ceremony, which was held in front of scores of U.S. troops and foreign media. There was a seat reserved for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But he did not attend.

Soldiers took the flag representing the U.S. military command in Iraq, rolled it around the staff, and slipped into a camouflage cloth case. The gesture marked the symbolic end of Operation New Dawn and the war that lasted nearly nine years, killed more than 4,000 Americans along with tens of thousands of Iraqis, and unleashed sectarian violence in the country.

Panetta called’s Thursday’s ceremony a historic occasion. “To be sure, the cost was high, in blood and treasure for the United States and for the Iraqi people. Those lives were not lost in vain,” he said. “They gave birth to an independent, free and sovereign Iraq.”

People chant anti-US slogans during a demonstration in Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq, December 14, 2011.

What U.S. forces leave behind is a stability that is fragile at best. Violence has diminished in the past few years, but continues to flare, with attacks carried out by insurgents, some of them operating with Iranian support.

Some U.S. officials had wanted to keep several thousand troops in place beyond a December 31 deadline that Washington and Baghdad set three years ago. However, President Obama announced a total withdrawal in October after his administration failed to reach an agreement for Iraq to provide immunity to U.S. troops.


VOA

At the time of the announcement, there were about 50,000 troops in Iraq. That number is down to a few thousand as the last convoys of trucks make their way south to bases in Kuwait.

In his remarks Thursday, Panetta said Washington will remain engaged in Iraq.

“Let me be clear,” said Panetta. “Iraq will be tested in the days ahead by terrorism and by those who would seek to divide it; by economic and social issues; by the demands of democracy itself. Challenges remain, but the U.S. will stand by the Iraqi people as they navigate those challenges to build a stronger and more prosperous nation.”

The American embassy in Baghdad houses the United States’ largest diplomatic presence in the world, and a small number of troops will remain, mainly to protect diplomats.

Some Iraqis this week celebrated the departure of U.S. troops, while others expressed concern that the country could again slip into chaos and violence.

Whatever the outcome, the future of Iraq remains in the hands of its people.

Timeline of the Iraq Invasion

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US flag ceremony ends war in Iraq December 15, 2011


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US Defences Secretary, Leon Panetta: “To all of the men and women in uniform today your nation is deeply indebted to you.”

The flag of American forces in Iraq has been lowered in Baghdad, bringing nearly nine years of US military operations in Iraq to a formal end.

The US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, told troops the mission had been worth the cost in blood and dollars.

He said the years of war in Iraq had yielded to an era of opportunity in which the US was a committed partner.

Only about 4,000 US soldiers now remain in Iraq, but they are due to leave in the next two weeks.

At the peak of the operation, US forces there numbered 170,000.

Continue reading the main story

Analysis




For 40 years, Iraq has been one of the most damaged countries on earth.

The American-led invasion and overthrow of Saddam led to a savage civil war which is still not finished.

The United States leaves behind a country embittered by the occupation.

And yet today, as the Americans pull down their flag and leave, some Iraqis hope that their country’s luck may be turning.

If Iraq becomes wealthy, if it can stay more or less democratic, if it can finally bring terrorism to an end, then the 40 years of horror may be over.

Its people deserve a little good luck at last.

The symbolic ceremony in Baghdad officially “cased” (retired) the US forces flag, according to army tradition.

It will now be taken back to the USA.

Mr Panetta told US soldiers they could leave Iraq with great pride.

“After a lot of blood spilled by Iraqis and Americans, the mission of an Iraq that could govern and secure itself has become real,” he said.

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Hussain al-Shahristani said Iraqis were glad the US troops were leaving.

“They have been difficult years,” he told the BBC.

“We have had some successes together. We had some failures. We have some mishaps.

“I think we are all happy that the American soldiers are returning home safely to their families and we are also confident that the Iraqi people and their armed forces, police, are in a position now to take care of their own security.”

Some 4,500 US soldiers and more than 100,000 Iraqis have died in the war.

The conflict, launched by the Bush administration in March 2003, soon became hugely unpopular as claims that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction and supporting al-Qaeda militants turned out to be untrue.

The war has cost the US some $1tr.

Republicans have criticised the pullout citing concerns over Iraq’s stability, but a recent poll by the Pew Research Centre found that 75% of Americans backed the troop withdrawal.

‘Moment of success’

President Barack Obama, who came to office pledging to bring troops home, said on Wednesday that the US left behind a “sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq”.

In a speech in North Carolina to troops who have just returned, Mr Obama hailed the “extraordinary achievement” of the military and said they were leaving with “heads held high”.

“Everything that American troops have done in Iraq, all the fighting and dying, bleeding and building, training and partnering, has led us to this moment of success,” he said.


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Barack Obama: “You have shown why the US military is the finest fighting force in the history of the world”

“The war in Iraq will soon belong to history, and your service belongs to the ages.”

He said the war had been “a source of great controversy” but that they had helped to build “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people”.

Mr Obama announced in October that all US troops would leave Iraq by the end of 2011, a date previously agreed by former President George W Bush in 2008.

Some 1.5 million Americans have served in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003. In addition to those who died, nearly 30,000 have been wounded.

Troop numbers peaked during the height of the so-called surge strategy in 2007, but the last combat troops left Iraq in August last year.

A small contingent of some 200 soldiers will remain in Iraq as advisers, while some 15,000 US personnel are now based at the US embassy in Baghdad – by far the world’s largest.

‘Ruin and mess’

Some Iraqis have said they fear the consequences of being left to manage their own security.

Baghdad trader Malik Abed said he was grateful to the Americans for ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein, but added: “I think now we are going to be in trouble. Maybe the terrorists will start attacking us again.”

But in the city of Falluja, a former insurgent stronghold which was the scene of major US offensives in 2004, people burned US flags on Wednesday in celebration at the withdrawal.

“No-one trusted their promises, but they said when they came to Iraq they would bring security, stability and would build our country,” Ahmed Aied, a grocer, told Reuters news agency.

“Now they are walking out, leaving behind killings, ruin and mess.”

Concerns have also been voiced in Washington that Iraq lacks robust political structures or an ability to defend its borders.

There are also fears that Iraq could be plunged back into sectarian bloodletting, or be unduly influenced by Iran.

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Terror suspect defence law passes

FBI Director Robert Mueller said it was not clear how the provision would impact law enforcement agencies

The US House of Representatives has passed a defence bill likely to change the way the US detains terror suspects.

The bill passed after the White House lifted a veto threat, noting “several important changes” had been made. It is likely to go to the Senate on Thursday.

The bill also includes additional sanctions against Iran’s central bank and freezes some aid to Pakistan.

The clauses are part of a wider, $662bn (£428bn) defence bill approving weapons systems and military salaries.

In the most scrutinised parts of the legislation, the bill would deny terror suspects – including US citizens – of the right to trial and would permit indefinite detention.

‘Additional discretion’

The issue is part of a wider debate over whether to treat terror suspects as criminals or prisoners of war, correspondents say.

Top members of the president’s national security team, including Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, negotiated for changes to the parts of the bill that deal with the handling of terror suspects.

The law will require that the military take custody of terrorism suspects but safeguards the president’s ability to prosecute detainees in the civilian justice system.

US citizens would be exempt from this provision, and affirms that the changes would not affect US law enforcement agencies.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the bill “does not challenge the president’s ability to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists and protect the American people.”

But some officials had more practical objections to the clause. FBI Director Robert Mueller criticised the provision for its lack of clarity on how the changes would be implemented at the time of arrest.

The White House said that some of those concerns remain.

“While we remain concerned about the uncertainty that this law will create for our counter-terrorism professionals, the most recent changes give the president additional discretion in determining how the law will be implemented,” Mr Carney added.

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Panetta: Troops’ Sacrifices ‘Paying Off’ in Afghanistan

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told American troops in eastern Afghanistan the United States is winning the 10-year-old war against extremists in the country.

Panetta flew to a remote U.S. Military base to present valor award medals to soldiers and offer reassurances the troops are making what he called significant progress in the war against extremists.

“I really think that for all the sacrifice that you are doing, the reality is that it is paying off and that we are moving in the right direction, and we are winning this very tough conflict here in Afghanistan,” he said.

Despite recent high-profile attacks by extremist groups, Panetta said Afghanistan is enjoying the most reduced levels of violence in five years, adding that U.S.-led NATO forces have weakened the Taliban to the point where the group has not conducted a successful attack to regain lost territory.

But Panetta said the mission has yet to be completed and much of eastern Afghanistan remains an area of concern for U.S. forces.

Troubled relations with Pakistan are complicating U.S. efforts to stabilize the region. Washington has accused Pakistan’s security agency of supporting extremists who have launched attacks inside Afghanistan. Pakistan has recently closed off supply routes to U.S. forces following a recent NATO attack on the border that Pakistan says killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

Panetta, standing fewer than 60 kilometers from the Pakistani border as he delivered his message, called for Islamabad to do more to bring stability to the region. He described U.S.-Pakistan relations as difficult but necessary and important.

“We are continuing to work with them in the hope that we can establish that kind of relationship,” he said. “We have got to do that because, ultimately, we have got to make sure that if we are going to secure this country, the Pakistanis had better damned well secure their country as well.”

Panetta later met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The Afghan leader told reporters the 10-year war has brought overall stability to Afghanistan, but said much needs to be done before the Afghan people can enjoy peace and security.

“With regard to bringing personal security to the Afghan people, we have a journey to make and I hope that journey will be done sooner and successfully,” said Karzai.

The U.S. has begun drawing down its forces in Afghanistan, a process it expects to complete in 2014.

Following his Afghanistan visit, Panetta will stop in Baghdad to mark the end of the eight-year-old U.S. mission in Iraq.

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Panetta in Afghanistan, Calls 2011 a ‘Turning Point’ December 14, 2011

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is on a surprise visit to Afghanistan, where he says 2011 will mark a turning point in the 10-year-old war.  

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Kabul for a visit with troops and a first-hand assessment from the man who commands them, General John Allen.

Speaking on his way to the region, Panetta said he wants to see what troops have been able to accomplish in Afghanistan. “[The year] 2011 will mark a turning point with regards to the effort in Afghanistan. Our troops have been able to obviously reduce the levels of violence there. We’ve seen the lowest levels of violence in almost five years now. They are successful in securing some of the key areas in Afghanistan,” he said.

The United States expects to complete a drawdown of troops in the country by 2014.  The defense chief said the U.S.-led coalition has made gains against Taliban insurgents in most of the country.

Despite continuing insurgent attacks, he said U.S. forces are on their way to being able to hand over military and police control of the whole country to the Afghans on schedule. “Clearly I think Afghanistan is on a much better track in terms of our ability to eventually transition to an Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself,” he said.

Prospects for a smooth transition are being complicated by deteriorating relations with Pakistan, especially after a NATO-led attack on a border area last month killed 24 Pakistanis troops.  Pakistan responded by closing off a key supply routes for U.S. forces and moving air defense systems to its border with Afghanistan.

General Allen told reporters Tuesday in Kabul he has been reaching out to the Pakistanis in an effort to repair ties and restore cooperation along the Afghan border.  Allen said he spoke with his Pakistani counterpart, General Ashfaq Kayani, by telephone this week. “The outcome of the conversation was that we stated our mutual commitment to address any shortfalls that may have caused this event, and also to ensure that we work closely together because the border is always going to be there,” he said.

Panetta said a good relationship with Pakistan is crucial to winning the war in Afghanistan.

After Kabul, the U.S. Defense Secretary heads to Baghdad for a ceremony marking the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

During a stop in Djibouti earlier, Panetta said Washington’s attention is turning to the Horn of Africa and Yemen, where he said al-Qaida and other terrorist networks are moving in.  He said the U.S. relationship with Djibouti has developed into a very important partnership in this new phase of the counter-terrorism effort.   

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the process of drawing down, Panetta is touring the region to take stock of both conflicts.  He also plans a visit to Libya where U.S.-led NATO forces this year helped a popular revolution overthrow the government of the late leader Muammar Qadafi.

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Netanyahu spokesman: Palestinians to blame for deadlock December 3, 2011

A spokesman for Israel‘s prime minister has said the Palestinian leadership is to blame for the deadlock in peace talks, a day after the US defence secretary asserted that Israel was not doing enough to renew negotiations.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Binyamin Netanyahu, said Israel remains ready for the resumption of peace talks without preconditions. The Palestinians, he said, are “playing diplomatic games to try to cover their position, which is to boycott Israel and to refuse to enter negotiations”.

In a speech at a Brookings Institution forum in Washington on Friday, US defence secretary Leon Panetta urged Israel to “reach out and mend fences” with Turkey, Egypt and other security partners in the Middle East, saying he was troubled by the Jewish state’s growing isolation in the volatile region.

Panetta said that while Israel is not solely responsible for its isolation, it could more actively attempt to reverse the trend.

“For example, Israel can reach out and mend fences with those who share an interest in regional stability countries like Turkey and Egypt, as well as Jordan,” he said.

“This is not impossible. If the gestures are rebuked, the world will see those rebukes for what they are. And that is exactly why Israel should pursue them.”

He also pressed Israeli leaders to do more to restart peace talks with the Palestinians – saying “Just get to the damned table” – and underscored Barack Obama’s determination to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

He called Iran “a very grave threat to all of us” and said any Iranian disruption of the free flow of commerce through the Persian Gulf is a “red line” for the US.

Panetta, 73, who made his first visit to Israel as Pentagon chief in October, said it is in the interests of Israel as well as Turkey, a Nato ally of the US, to reconcile. He said he would take that message to Ankara when he visits there in two weeks.

He urged the Israelis to address their concerns about Egypt’s political revolution through increased communication and co-operation with Egyptian authorities, “not by stepping away from them”.

Addressing an issue that is in the primary domain of secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Panetta urged Israel to “lean forward” to achieve peace with the Palestinians. Peace talks have been moribund for more than a year.

“Rather than undermining the Palestinian Authority, it is in Israel’s interests to strengthen it by … continuing to transfer Palestinian tax revenues and pursuing other avenues of co-operation,” he said.

Panetta spoke starkly of the challenge of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“No greater threat exists to the security and prosperity of the Middle East than a nuclear-armed Iran,” he said, adding that Obama has not ruled out using military force to stop Iran from going nuclear.

In a question-and-answer session with his audience after his speech, Panetta laid out in detail his thinking on the arguments against an Israeli or US military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

He said such an attack would “at best” delay Iran’s nuclear programme by one or two years. Among the unintended consequences, he said, would be an increase in regional support for Iran and the likelihood of Iranian retaliation against US forces and bases in the Middle East. It also would have harmful economic consequences and could lead to military escalation, he said.

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Panetta to Israel: ‘Get to the Damn Table’ for Peace Talks

The top U.S. defense official is warning Israel it cannot afford to further isolate itself from Arab neighbors in the Middle East.

During a forum in Washington late Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Israel needs to start by getting back “to the damn table” and negotiating peace with the Palestinians.  He also called on Israel to mend its fraying relationships with traditional partners like Turkey, Egypt and Jordan.

Some Israeli leaders have viewed the Arab Spring, and uprisings like the one that toppled long-time Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, as a threat to regional stability as well as to Israel’s security.  But Panetta urged Israeli officials to reject that way of thinking.

Panetta said Israel has no choice but to take some risks to ensure a safer future, starting with resuming peace talks with the Palestinians, a process that Panetta said has “effectively been put on hold.”

The U.S. defense secretary said the U.S. continues to be committed to safeguarding Israel’s security but that “Israel too, has a responsibility” to build regional support through “strong diplomacy.”

Panetta also addressed ongoing concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, but said that while the U.S. has not ruled out using military force, such a strike was an option of last resort.  He said a possible military strike might only delay Iran’s nuclear program by two years, while potentially rattling the U.S. and European economies.

Turkey was the first Muslim state to recognize Israel in 1949, but relations worsened last year when Israeli commandos boarded an aid flotilla challenging a naval blockade of the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, killing nine Turkish activists.

Israeli-Egyptian relations soured in August when Israeli troops killed five Egyptian policemen while pursuing Palestinian gunmen who crossed into Israel from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and killed eight Israelis.  

Israel also fears that if radical Islamist political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood make a strong showing in the latest elections, Egypt will annul the two countries’ peace agreement.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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US urges Israel to end isolation in Middle East

US defence secretary Leon Panetta has urged Israel to “reach out and mend fences” with Turkey, Egypt and other security partners in the Middle East, saying he is troubled by the Jewish state’s growing isolation in the volatile region.

In a speech at a Brookings Institution forum in Washington, Panetta said that while Israel is not solely responsible for its isolation, it could more actively attempt to reverse the trend.

“For example, Israel can reach out and mend fences with those who share an interest in regional stability countries like Turkey and Egypt, as well as Jordan,” he said.

“This is not impossible. If the gestures are rebuked, the world will see those rebukes for what they are. And that is exactly why Israel should pursue them.”

He also pressed Israeli leaders to do more to restart peace talks with the Palestinians – saying “Just get to the damned table” – and underscored Barack Obama’s determination to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

He called Iran “a very grave threat to all of us” and said any Iranian disruption of the free flow of commerce through the Persian Gulf is a “red line” for the US.

Panetta, 73, who made his first visit to Israel as Pentagon chief in October, said it is in the interests of Israel as well as Turkey, a Nato ally of the US, to reconcile. He said he would take that message to Ankara when he visits there in two weeks.

He urged the Israelis to address their concerns about Egypt’s political revolution through increased communication and co-operation with Egyptian authorities, “not by stepping away from them”.

Addressing an issue that is in the primary domain of secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Panetta urged Israel to “lean forward” to achieve peace with the Palestinians. Peace talks have been moribund for more than a year.

“Rather than undermining the Palestinian Authority, it is in Israel’s interests to strengthen it by … continuing to transfer Palestinian tax revenues and pursuing other avenues of co-operation,” he said.

Panetta spoke starkly of the challenge of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“No greater threat exists to the security and prosperity of the Middle East than a nuclear-armed Iran,” he said, adding that Obama has not ruled out using military force to stop Iran from going nuclear.

In a question-and-answer session with his audience after his speech, Panetta laid out in detail his thinking on the arguments against an Israeli or US military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

He said such an attack would “at best” delay Iran’s nuclear programme by one or two years. Among the unintended consequences, he said, would be an increase in regional support for Iran and the likelihood of Iranian retaliation against US forces and bases in the Middle East. It also would have harmful economic consequences and could lead to military escalation, he said.

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Nato air attack on Pakistani troops was self-defence, says senior western official November 27, 2011

An attack by Nato aircraft on Pakistani troops that allegedly killed as many as 28 soldiers and looks set to further poison relations between the US and Pakistan was an act of self-defence, a senior western official has claimed.

According to the Kabul-based official, a joint US-Afghan force operating in the mountainous Afghan frontier province of Kunar was the first to come under attack in the early hours of Saturday morning, forcing them to return fire.

The high death toll from an incident between two supposed allies suggests Nato helicopters and jets strafed Pakistani positions with heavy weapons.

The deadliest friendly fire incident since the start of the decade-long war also prompted Pakistan to ban Nato supply trucks from crossing into Afghanistan and to issue an order demanding the US quit the remote Shamsi airbase, from which the US has operated some unmanned drone aircraft.

A spokesman for Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said it was “highly likely” that aircraft which had been called into the area to provide “close air support” to troops on the ground was responsible for causing casualties among the Pakistani soldiers.

For their part, a statement by the Pakistani military claimed that it was they who were attacked first, forcing them to respond to Nato’s “aggression with all available weapons”.

According to Pakistani officials the 40 or so soldiers stationed at the outposts were asleep at the time of the attack. Government officials said the two border posts that were attacked had recently been established to try to stop insurgents who use bases in Afghanistan to attack Pakistan from crossing the border and launching attacks.

Afghan intelligence say the US-Afghan force was conducting operations against suspected Taliban training camps in the area.

The Obama administration promised a full investigation. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, and Leon Panetta, the defence secretary, issued a joint statement saying they had each spoken to their Pakistani counterparts to express their condolences for the loss of life.

The vagueness of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is one potential, and relatively innocent, explanation for the incident. Drawn up by the British Raj in 1893, there is little agreement on where the so-called Durand Line actually falls, meaning troops from either side of the border can wander into the neighbouring country without realising it. One senior military official said that, in places, rival maps have discrepancies of “multiples of kilometres – sometimes as much as five kilometres”.

Much of the fighting in Afghanistan is conducted by guerrillas based a short distance inside Pakistan. Nato forces are not allowed to cross the border and militants sometimes fire artillery and rockets across the line from locations close to Pakistani army posts.

And yet both sides have worked hard to try and minimise any confusion. The attack happened just a day after John Allen, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, met with Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the Pakistani army chief, to discuss enhanced co-operation on the border.

But a more troubling explanation would be that insurgents in the area were operating under the nose of Pakistani security forces. Many Afghan officials believe Pakistan helps the Taliban with cross-border operations.

Edrees Momand of the Afghan Border Police said that a US-Afghan force in the area near the Pakistani outposts detained several militants on Saturday morning.

“I am not aware of the casualties on the other side of the border but those we have detained aren’t Afghan Taliban,” he said, implying they may have been Pakistani or other foreign national Taliban operating in Afghanistan.

Whatever the outcome of investigations, the incident is likely to do yet more damage to the critical relationship between the US and Pakistan. The alliance between the two countries has been repeatedly battered in the past year, first by the jailing of a CIA contractor and then by US special forces who raided deep inside Pakistani territory and killed Osama bin Laden.

More recently the US has accused Pakistan of backing a militant group who launched a 20-hour attack on the US embassy in Kabul.

Washington believes Pakistan continues to support the Taliban, a movement it publicly backed in the 1990s, in order to have influence in Afghanistan. But at the same time as supporting the enemies of the US, Pakistan remains crucial to the military mission in Afghanistan.

John Allen was quick to release a statement saying the incident had his “highest personal attention”.

“My most sincere and personal heartfelt condolences go out to the families and loved ones of any members of Pakistan security forces who may have been killed or injured,” he said.

Islamabad reacted with fury to the attack.

“This is an attack on Pakistan’s sovereignty,” said Pakistan’s prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani. “We will not let any harm come to Pakistan’s sovereignty and solidarity.”

In a statement General Kayani promised “all necessary steps be undertaken for an effective response to this irresponsible act.

“A strong protest has been launched with Nato/ISAF in which it has been demanded that strong and urgent action be taken against those responsible for this aggression.”

A cabinet committee convened by Gilani said the government would launch a complete review of its diplomatic, political, military and intelligence relationships with the US.

The vast bulk of Nato supplies arrive in Afghanistan by trucks that haul equipment up from the port of Karachi to the Khyber Pass, a key crossing point over the mountainous border into Afghanistan.

The shutting down of the border to Nato traffic has happened in the past during periods of Pakistani displeasure with Afghanistan and its foreign backers.

A similar incident last year in which two Pakistani troops were killed led to the closure of one of Nato’s supply routes for ten days.

However, in recent years the alliance has opened up alternative supply routes through Central Asia, reducing its reliance on the route through Pakistan.

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Pakistan to Reexamine Relations with US After Deadly NATO Raid

Pakistan says it is reviewing its relations with the United States and NATO in the aftermath of a predawn cross-border airstrike Saturday on two military outposts in the country’s northwest which killed at least 26 Pakistani soldiers and wounded 14 others.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and top military and government leaders discussed the situation at an emergency meeting late Saturday.

In a formal statement, they said the Pakistani government “will revisit and undertake a complete review of all programs, activities and cooperative arrangements with US/NATO/ISAF, including diplomatic, political, military and intelligence.”  They called for “strong and urgent action against those responsible for this aggression.”

Mr. Gilani said the killings were “an attack on Pakistan’s sovereignty,” and his army chief of staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, condemned the attack as “blatant and unacceptable act.”

Pakistan shut down all NATO supply lines through its territory to Afghanistan and ordered the United States to vacate an airbase in southwestern Baluchistan province within 15 days.  The CIA reportedly uses the Shamsi airbase for covert drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal belt, but the Pakistani military said in June that the United States does not operate out of that base.

The United States says Pakistan’s tribal belt is a sanctuary for the Taliban, which has been fighting for 10 years against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.  However, official Washington scrambled Saturday to stress how seriously U.S. officials are taking this incident.

The White House said senior U.S. civilian and military officials contacted their Pakistani counterparts “to express our condolences, our desire to work together to determine what took place, and our commitment to the U.S.-Pakistan partnership … [of] shared interests, including fighting terrorism.”

Pentagon chief Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued an unusual joint statement expressing their “deepest condolences” for the incident in Pakistan’s border region.  They stressed they would would press for an immediate investigation by NATO.

U.S. officials have not given a detailed account of the raid on the Pakistani outposts, nor have they confirmed that Pakistan shut down supply lines to Afghanistan.

NATO said the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, General John Allen, is personally paying the “highest attention” to the investigation of what happened.

NATO spokesman General Carsten Jacobson said Afghan and coalition forces were operating in the border area of eastern Afghanistan when “a tactical situation” prompted them to call in close air support.  He said it was “likely” that coalition airstrikes caused Pakistani casualties.

In Islamabad, U.S. Ambassador Cameron Munter was summoned to the Foreign Ministry to explain the incident.  Munter said he promised the U.S. would work closely with Pakistan in any investigation.

Ties between Washington and Islamabad have been unraveling since a covert U.S. commando raid on May 2 killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who was hiding for years in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbotabad.  Pakistan was outraged it was not informed beforehand and angered by what it saw as a U.S. violation of its sovereignty.

In Washington, the joint Panetta-Clinton statement said the secretary of state, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, and ISAF commander General Allen “each called their Pakistani counterparts…These U.S. diplomatic and military leaders each stressed, in addition to their sympathies and a commitment to review the circumstances of the incident, the importance of the U.S.-Pakistani partnership, which serves the mutual interests of our people.”

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Obama Australia visit begins November 16, 2011

Barack Obama has arrived in Australia on a visit that will be dominated by the announcement of a greater American military presence in the country as a counterbalance to China.

Obama arrived in Canberra, the Australian capital, on Wednesday afternoon on board Air Force One.

The US president will stay for a day and a half, meeting with the country’s prime minister, Julia Gillard, and addressing the Australian parliament.

Obama has twice cancelled visits to Australia: once to stay in Washington to lobby for passage of his healthcare bill, and then to deal with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The visit is a chance to renew bonds with a close US ally and strengthen the two nations’ defence posture in the Pacific region. It commemorates the 60th anniversary of the Australia-New Zealand-United States (Anzus) defence treaty, which binds the three countries to assist each other if attacked.

The president is expected to announce that the US is expanding its military presence in Australia – putting more US equipment in place, increasing its access to bases and conducting more joint exercises and training. This is in response to an increasingly aggressive China, which claims dominion over vast areas of the Pacific that the US considers international waters, and has alarmed smaller Asian neighbors by reigniting old territorial disputes, including confrontations over the South China Sea.

The US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, has said the goal is to signal that America and Australia will stick together in face of any threats.

Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said US forces would also be able to respond more quickly to natural disasters in the region, such as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and fight terrorism and piracy to help keep sea lanes open.

An increased US presence would help the United States “protect our interests, protect our allies” and help it “play its critical role as an anchor of stability and security in the region”, Rhodes said.

Kim Beazley, Australia’s ambassador to the US and a former Labor defence minister and opposition leader, said Obama’s mere appearance was “enormously important” to Australians. And for the US Australia’s location in the burgeoning Asia-Pacific was increasingly important as China became more powerful.

“It’s an area where the United States has got considerable freedom of action, considerable interests, growing interests,” Beazley said. “And Australia is well located strategically.”

Obama is to meet with Gillard on Wednesday, then on Thursday address parliament before travelling to Darwin on Australia’s remote northern coast.

It’s the first time a sitting US president has been to Darwin, where US and Australian forces were killed in a Japanese attack during the second world war. Obama will visit a memorial to the dead.

Obama will visit a military base in Darwin that is expected to be at the centre of America’s plans to send more troops.

From Australia Obama will head to Indonesia for a security summit with Asian nations before finishing his nine-day trip and returning to Washington on 20 November.

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Dire warnings from Pentagon over potential defense cuts November 15, 2011

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta turned up the heat on Congress Monday, warning that looming automatic budget cuts would undermine national security and set off a financial chain reaction from the hallways of the Pentagon, to the battlefields of Afghanistan, to civilian assembly lines.

The Pentagon already is digesting $450 billion of reductions over the next decade but now fears an additional $600 billion or more in cuts may be imminent if Congress cannot reach a deal on spending.

“The impacts of these cuts would be devastating for the department,” Panetta said in a letter to Sens. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina. He said that congressional failure to reach a budget agreement and the resulting so-called sequestration would trigger 23% across-the-board reductions and a halt to many new projects.

“Such a large cut, applied in this indiscriminate manner, would render most of our ship and construction projects unexecutable — you cannot buy three quarters of a ship or a building — and seriously damage other modernization efforts,” Panetta wrote to the senators.

“We would also be forced to separate many of our civilian personnel involuntarily and, because the reduction would be imposed so quickly, we would almost certainly have to furlough civilians in order to meet the target. These changes would break faith with those who maintain our military and seriously damage readiness.”

The cuts would eventually hit combat troops, Panetta said.

“While wartime funding in the Overseas Contingency Operations accounts is not directly affected by the sequester, war efforts would be adversely affected by the severe disruption in the base budgets,” Panetta warned. “Contracting personnel would be cut, resulting in delays in the contracts and the contract oversight that support the war. Payroll personnel would be cut, resulting in late payments to wartime vendors, and legal and policy support would be disrupted.”

The two senators had written Panetta 10 days ago, asking for details of the potential impact of the automatic cuts on the Defense Department.

“The consequence of a sequester on the Defense Department would set off a swift decline of the United States as the world’s leading military power. We are staunchly opposed to this draconian action,” the senators said in a joint statement Monday afternoon when they released Panetta’s letter. “This is not an outcome that we can live with, and it is certainly not one that we should impose on ourselves. The sequester is a threat to the national security interests of the United States, and it should not be allowed to occur.”

Whether the Panetta letter and the fresh warnings from Senators will increase pressure for a budget compromise or step up calls to exempt the Pentagon from cuts remains to be seen.

Panetta has been increasingly outspoken about the possible cuts, although he came to the top Pentagon job with years of budget expertise himself in Congress and the White House and knowing that he was facing tough choices.

At a news conference last week, the secretary of defense painted a bleak picture of what could lie ahead — a military with a shell but no core. “It’s a ship without sailors. It’s a brigade without bullets. It’s an air wing without enough trained pilots. It’s a paper tiger, an Army of barracks, buildings and bombs without enough trained soldiers able to accomplish the mission,” Panetta said in his opening remarks at the Pentagon. “It’s a force that suffers low morale, poor readiness and is unable to keep up with potential adversaries. In effect, it invites aggression..”

In an addendum to his letters to McCain and Graham, Panetta spelled out new specifics of how reductions “generate significant operational risks: delay response time to crises, conflicts, and disasters; severely limits our ability to be forward deployed and engaged around the world; and assumes unacceptable risk in future combat operations.”

And Panetta said that some of the biggest defense projects could face the ax, including those already being tested and some just in early stages of planning. That list included the F35 Joint Strike Fighter, a planned new bomber, the next-generation ballistic submarine, the new littoral combat ship and the new ground combat vehicle the Army and Marines need to replace the humvee.

Halting further development and testing the F35 could generate some $80 billion in savings over 10 years but its supporters say it is a vital next step to upgrade and meet potential threats from China and other rivals.


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Leon Panetta warns against Iran strike November 11, 2011

Military action against Iran could have “unintended consequences” in the region, the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, said on Thursday, hours after Tehran warned that an attack against its nuclear sites would be met with “iron fists”.

Panetta, who took over the Pentagon’s top job in July, said he agreed with the assessment of his predecessor, Robert Gates, that a strike on Iran would only delay its nuclear programme, which the west believes is aimed at making an atomic bomb.

“You’ve got to be careful of unintended consequences here,” Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon.

“It could have a serious impact in the region, and it could have a serious impact on US forces in the region,” he said. “And I think all of those things, you know, need to be carefully considered.”

Tension over Iran’s nuclear programme has increased since Tuesday when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Tehran appeared to have worked on designing a bomb and may still be conducting secret research to that end.

Iran has warned that it will respond to any attacks by hitting Israel and US interests in the Gulf. Analysts say Tehran could retaliate by closing the Strait of Hormuz, the waterway where about 40% of all traded oil passes through.

“Our enemies, particularly the Zionist regime, America and its allies, should know that any kind of threat and attack or even thinking about any action will be firmly responded to,” Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on state television.

Last week, a US military official told a forum in Washington that he saw Iran as the top threat to America and its allies in the Middle East.

He pointed to concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme and also to accusations by the US that Iran plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington, an allegation Tehran has denied.

However, Panetta said military action remained a last resort in the US and Israeli view, and stressed Washington’s efforts to win tougher sanctions against Tehran.

“It is important for us to make sure we apply the toughest sanctions – economic, diplomatic pressures – on Iran to change their behaviour,” he said.

“And we are in discussions with our allies with regards to additional sanctions that ought to be placed on Iran.”

The European Union may approve fresh sanctions against Iran within weeks, EU diplomats said on Thursday.

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US Honoring Military Personnel on Veterans Day

U.S. President Barack Obama leads the nation in honoring the nation’s veterans on Friday, a national holiday that pays tribute to those who have served in the armed forces.  

As part of the Veterans Day events, President Obama is to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony and deliver remarks at Arlington National Cemetery, just outside Washington.  Later, he is to travel to the southern California city of San Diego, where he is to deliver remarks on a US Navy carrier, the USS Carl Vinson.

Veterans Day commemorates the date in 1918 when the cease-fire agreement was signed that ended the battles of World War One ((“the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month”)).  It is observed in Europe and elsewhere as Armistice or Remembrance Day.

Earlier this month, President Obama issued a proclamation honoring the men and women of the U.S. armed forces.  The proclamation said that in times of war and peace alike, “our veterans have served with courage and distinction in the face of tremendous adversity, demonstrating an unfaltering commitment to America and our people.”  He said many have made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve the country they loved.  

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has also issued a Veterans Day message extending his thanks to troops and veterans.  He said the U.S. owes a profound debt to all veterans and military families, noting that President Obama has designated November as Military Family Month.

This year, Veterans Day comes less than two months before all U.S. troops are due to leave Iraq, and while nearly 100,000 American service members remain in Afghanistan.  U.S. combat troops are set to complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.  International forces have already begun transferring security responsibility to their Afghan counterparts.   

The Afghan ambassador to the U.S., Eklil Hakimi, said in a message that Afghanistan remains the front line in the war against terror.  He said the collective mission to combat terrorism on Afghan soil unites Americans, Afghans and their allies in a firm commitment to overcome oppression, fear and intimidation imposed by terrorists all over the globe.  Hakimi said Afghanistan stands side by side with the United States, an important strategic partner.

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Pentagon warns against attacking Iran


November 11, 2011

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Pentagon warns against attacking Iran 10 Nov 2011 US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned against “unintended consequences” of any military attack against Iran over the country’s nuclear program. The Pentagon chief said on Thursday that the strike could have a “serious impact on the region and it could have a serious impact on US forces in the region,” AFP reported. He made the remarks after Israel’s recent rhetoric against Iran and its test-launch of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.

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US Defense Chief Warns Against Military Strike on Iran

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says military action against Iran could have unintended consequences.  The warning came at a press conference Thursday.

The U.S. defense chief’s warning follows the release this week of a report by the International Atomic Energy agency that says Iran may be carrying out secret experiments for the purpose of developing nuclear weapons.

The report bolstered calls by some in Israel’s government who have been calling for an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities sooner rather than later.

At a joint conference with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey,  Panetta warned against any military action.   Panetta said he agrees with the assessment of his predecessor, Robert Gates, that a military strike would only set the Iranian nuclear program back by three years at most. 

“You’ve got to be careful of unintended consequences here and those consequences could involve not only, not really deterring Iran from what they want to do, but more importantly it could have a serious impact in the region and it could have a serious impact on U.S. forces in the region,” said Panetta.

Panetta said the U.S. and its allies should instead toughen economic and diplomatic sanctions on Iran to change its behavior.

On a visit to Israel last month,  Panetta warned against any unilateral action against Iran.  Israel says it will use military force only as a last resort.  Iran says it will retaliate if attacked.

Also in his remarks Thursday, Panetta called for an independent investigation of the alleged mishandling of U.S. soldiers’ remains at Dover Air Force Base in the U.S. state of Delaware, in a case that has sparked outrage among Americans. Three employees of the base’s mortuary revealed what they said were inappropriate actions that included losing body parts from the corpses of U.S. soldiers and – in one case – removing an arm bone from a dead soldier in order to make the body fit into his uniform for burial – a procedure that was reportedly done without relatives’ permission.

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US plays down strike against Iran

Iran says its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes only

The US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has said a military strike against Iran could have “unintended consequences”.

He said it would only delay Iran’s nuclear efforts by three years at most.

Correspondents say the comments appear to play down speculation that a military strike might be used to cripple Tehran’s nuclear programme.

On Tuesday, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, said Iran was carrying out research aimed at developing nuclear weapons capacity.

“You’ve got to be careful of unintended consequences here,” Mr Panetta told reporters in Washington, when asked about his concerns about a military strike.

He acknowledged military action might fail to deter Iran “from what they want to do”.

“But more importantly, it could have a serious impact in the region, and it could have a serious impact on US forces in the region,” he said.

“And I think all of those things need to be carefully considered.”

Leon Panetta said he supported sanctions against Iran

‘Toughest sanctions’

The BBC’s Zoe Conway Washington says the comments go against what in some Washington circles is seen as the accepted wisdom of using the military to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Speculation had been rife in the American and Israeli media that a strike could take place, either by the Americans themselves or by Israel.

Mr Panetta said he instead supported the use of “the toughest sanctions – economic, diplomatic pressures – on Iran to change their behaviour”.

Asked what the US would do if sanctions did not force Iran to change course, he said the hope was that it would not reach that point.

Iran insists that its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes, to generate civilian power.

In its latest and toughest report so far on Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on Tuesday that it had information indicating Iran had carried out tests “relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device”.

The IAEA said the research includes computer models that could only be used to develop a nuclear bomb trigger.

Tehran condemned the findings of the IAEA as politically motivated.

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Pentagon to probe lost body parts November 10, 2011

Mr Panetta has “the prerogative” to order further disciplinary action, a spokesman said

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has ordered a 60-day review of mortuary operations at an Air Force base that lost portions of soldiers’ remains.

A spokesman for Mr Panetta suggested that additional disciplinary action was possible.

Three supervisors at the mortuary were cited for what the Air Force called “gross mismanagement”, but not fired.

All were demoted or moved to other departments, including a colonel who received a letter of reprimand.

“Let me make very clear to the families of our fallen heroes that every step will be taken to protect the honour and dignity that their loved ones richly deserve,” Mr Panetta said in a written statement announcing the review.

George Little, a Pentagon spokesman told reporters the Air Force “did the right thing” by launching an investigation quickly.

A similar inquiry by the Office of the Special Counsel, an independent federal body based at the Department of Justice, said the Air Force failed to “acknowledge culpability for wrongdoing”.

Credibility problems

The whistle-blowing mortuary workers revealed 14 specific incidents at Dover.

They including the discovery of an empty bag that was supposed to contain an ankle from a soldier killed in Afghanistan, the Washington Post reported.

In the search, officials found that the remains of two other soldiers were found to have gone missing three months earlier.

In one grisly incident in April 2009, mortuary workers were ordered to saw off the arm bone of a deceased soldier in order to fit his body into a military uniform for burial, in accordance with the wishes of his family.

The workers initially objected but eventually went ahead with the procedure on the order of their superiors – without gaining the consent of the family.

The Office of the Special Counsel’s report said the US Air Force’s conclusions “do not appear reasonable”, considering the base’s responsibility to handle the remains of war casualties with the highest regard.

“More concerning, however, are the findings that these managers ignored evidence given to them, presented baseless explanations that were ‘simply not credible’, and took affirmative steps to conceal the problem,” Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner wrote in a letter to US President Barack Obama.

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US removes Afghanistan commander Peter Fuller for criticising Karzai November 5, 2011

Major General Peter Fuller, a top US commander in Afghanistan, has been relieved of his duties after criticising the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.

General John Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), relieved Fuller as deputy commander of the effort to train Afghan security forces after Fuller told Politico that Afghan leaders were “isolated from reality”, a US defence official said.

Pentagon spokesman George Little had said on Friday that defence secretary Leon Panetta was aware of the remarks and Fuller had been speaking for himself, not the US defence department.

“The secretary has full trust and confidence in General Allen’s judgment with respect to his decision in this case,” Little said in response to Allen’s decision to relieve Fuller of his duties.

Speaking in a Politico interview that ran on Thursday, Fuller depicted Afghan officials as detached and unappreciative of American sacrifices and financial contributions to Afghanistan after 10 years of war.

The interview painted Fuller as critical of Karzai’s recent comments suggesting Afghanistan would side with Pakistan if it went to war with the United States.

“Why don’t you just poke me in the eye with a needle! You’ve got to be kidding me – I’m sorry, we just gave you $11.6bn and now you’re telling me, ‘I don’t really care?’”

The interview quoted Fuller as saying Afghanistan did not recognise the sacrifice in “treasure and blood” the US was making for its security.

In July 2010 Barack Obama fired General Stanley McChrystal, then commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, over remarks he and his aides made in an explosive Rolling Stone magazine article that disparaged the president and other civilian leaders.

While Fuller’s job was far less senior than McChrystal’s, the training of Afghan security forces has become more and more central to Nato’s mission in Afghanistan as foreign forces gradually seek to put Afghan soldiers and police in charge of security.

Afghan security forces are far more numerous than they were and better skilled, but they still have inadequate fighting skills, poor equipment and widespread illiteracy.

While Obama plans to remove the 33,000 extra troops he sent following a 2009 review of Afghan war strategy, security conditions remain troubling. The United Nations says violence is at its worst level since the war began in 2001.

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US general in Afghanistan fired

US troops are helping train Afghan forces ahead of a 2014 troop withdrawal deadline

A senior US commander has been dismissed after he made disparaging comments about Afghanistan’s leaders.

Maj Gen Peter Fuller, deputy commander of Nato’s Afghan training mission, said in an interview with Politico the country’s leadership was “isolated from reality”.

It is not clear whether Gen Fuller will be reassigned or will retire.

The head of US forces in Afghanistan says Gen Fuller’s comments do not represent the US-Afghan relationship.

Gen John Allen described the two countries as “solid”, adding: “The Afghan people are an honourable people, and comments such as these will not keep us from accomplishing our most critical and shared mission – bringing about a stable, peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan.”

Pentagon spokesman George Little said Defence Secretary Leon Panetta was aware of the remarks but said that Gen Fuller had been speaking for himself and not the Department of Defense.

‘Poke me in the eye’

Speaking while visiting Washington, Gen Fuller told Politico on Thursday that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was an unimpressive public speaker.

“When they are going to have a presidential election, you hope they get a guy that’s more articulate in public,” he said.

Continue reading the main story

Start Quote

You can teach a man how to fish, or you can give them a fish. We’re giving them fish while they’re learning, and they want more fish!”

End Quote
Maj Gen Peter Fuller
Deputy commander of Nato training mission in Afghanistan

Gen Fuller also said that he tried to make Afghan generals understand that the US was involved in Afghanistan despite economic uncertainty at home.

“You think that America has roads paved in gold, everybody lives in Hollywood,” he said.

“They don’t understand the sacrifices that America is making to provide for their security.”

Politico have reported that the general appeared to be irritated when referring to a recent comment made by Mr Karzai – that Afghanistan would side with Pakistan if the country ever went to war with the US.

“Why don’t you just poke me in the eye with a needle! You’ve got to be kidding me. I’m sorry, we just gave you $11.6bn (£7.2bn) and now you’re telling me, ‘I don’t really care?’” Gen Fuller said.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that the Afghan president’s statement has been misinterpreted.

The general also likened the Nato training mission in Afghanistan to teaching a man to fish.

“You can teach a man how to fish, or you can give them a fish. We’re giving them fish while they’re learning, and they want more fish!

“[They say] ‘I like swordfish, how come you’re giving me cod?’ Guess what? Cod’s on the menu today,” he told Politico.

Gen Fuller’s is not the first senior military figure to find themselves in hot water over comments made to the media.

In the most serious case in recent years, Gen Stanley McChrystal resigned as commander of US forces in Afghanistan in June 2010 after making critical comments about senior members of the Obama administration that were published by Rolling Stone magazine.

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